Culture //

Dreaming through disaster: why we need utopias

Finding meaning in the radical politics of hope.

Art by Jun Kwoun

We live in an age of disaster and dystopia played out on repeat, from movies like Interstellar that depict worlds wrecked by climate change, to novels like The Hunger Games that envision cruel, authoritarian futures. Amidst this new reality, utopias have faded from popular culture. However,  to give up utopian visions is to give up challenging the societal structures they critique; it is to submit to the imprisoning logics of neoliberalism. To realise the revolutionary dreams that our crumbling planet cries out for, we must instead embrace the utopian call: another world is possible.

Ursula Le Guin’s landmark 1974 science-fiction novel, The Dispossessed, stands as an icon of utopian literature. The novel portrays an anarcho-syndicalist society that inhabits the moon Anarres, built upon decentralised governance structures and collective ownership of production. However, this world shares very little with typical notions of utopian paradise: aside from a few fertile regions, Anarres is spanned by harsh landscapes of vast deserts and salt lakes. Le Guin portrays utopia as emerging not from the final fulfilment of all material needs and the existence of a post-scarcity future, but from the human bonds formed by persistence in the face of overwhelming scarcity. Human solidarity ensures that no-one on Anarres goes unwillingly hungry or unhoused. 

Le Guin’s lessons are now more relevant than ever, effectively rebutting those who target the Global South with doom-laden claims of overpopulation. The Dispossessed suggests that poverty and homelessness in our own world are not the product of lacking abundance, but rather a failure in our modes of distribution. One-third of all food produced globally is wasted before it reaches the table. Can we truthfully claim that the 828 million people who went hungry in 2021 were merely victims of an inescapable natural order?

Le Guin’s society is far from perfect—citizens that don’t dedicate their entire efforts to the collective are publicly shamed for “egoizing”— yet in this lies the utter joy of her work. The Dispossessed shows that the label of “utopia” need not be relegated to perfect, unachievable societies. Despite being damned to an imperfect reality, we still have the power to change it. Utopia is what we make it. 

While we need utopias to aspire to, it’s just as important to separate the faulty and contrived visions from the truly radical ones. We’ve recently seen a line of billionaires that pay lip service to our collective humanity while offering up their own “utopias”, but their individualistic visions lack the human solidarity of radical worlds. Elon Musk wants to have one million humans living and working on Mars by 2050. The language of violence is inherent in his proposal: Musk and his ilk evoke the trauma of imperialism when they talk of “colonising” our Solar system. 

Furthermore, Musk has proposed what amounts to interplanetary indentured servitude for those who require loans to afford a jaunt to Mars. In a 2020 Twitter thread, when asked how travellers would work off their loans, Musk proclaimed that “There will be lots of jobs on Mars!” For him, space is nothing more than a new frontier for human exploitation in the pursuit of profit. The grinding capitalist machinery of debt, it seems, will be thrust out beyond the bounds of Earth and into the cosmic expanse. It’s a far cry from the moneyless, humanist spacefaring utopia of Star Trek.

These false utopian dreams deserve every bit of the derision they receive; accusations of escapist fantasy are rightly levelled at them. However, not all utopias must be doomed to this fate. The Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch talks of a utopian “impulse” woven throughout society, the human urge to never stop dreaming of a better tomorrow. Acts of everyday, practical utopianism are all around us, in our protest and fury, and in our solidarity and kindness. We need utopias so we can channel this impulse into something tangible, for revolutionary fury without hope only leads to self-destructive defeatism. 

The nascent Solarpunk movement, for example, imagines a green, economically just society emerging from a post-capitalist world. The Solarpunk ethos draws upon a broad cross-section of society, bringing together artists and writers with activists and community leaders. It’s a vision of democratised energy production via household solar and battery storage, and widespread recycling in a circular economy. I think we can already see the seeds of a Solarpunk future today, in the rising popularity of quaint community gardens and local co-operatives. These are the practical utopias we can build right now.

Utopias are all around us. We need only grasp them.